Scottish island 'paradise' abandoned by residents suffering from stress

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The open invitation was billed as a dream chance for overworked and jaded urbanites everywhere - quit the rat race and live on a Scottish island paradise where humans are outnumbered 4,500 to one by deer and seabirds.

The open invitation was billed as a dream chance for overworked and jaded urbanites everywhere ­ quit the rat race and live on a Scottish island paradise where humans are outnumbered 4,500 to one by deer and seabirds.

But the scheme to repopulate the Hebridean isle of Rhum appears to have backfired amid claims that nearly half of its meagre population has sailed away in the past year ­ because of stress. By the end of this month, just 23 people will remain on Rhum compared with a peak population of 42 last year, two years after the government agency that runs the island announced a £1m plan to build a permanent community.

Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), which has dispatched a welfare officer to investigate the problems, denied the exodus was due to imposing a "social experiment" on Rhum to boost the population.

The government quango announced in 1998 that it intended to expand the number of islanders to 50 by 2010 and called for applications from the mainland for vacancies. At the time, the population was at a record low of 19.

But inhabitants on the 26,000-acre island yesterday insisted the project ­ likened to the BBC's Castaway series ­ was in trouble after a spate of disputes, marriage break-ups and complaints against the heritage agency. The unrest in the close-knit community is understood to have prompted the island's doctor to write to SNH expressing concern about problems among patients, including stress-related illnesses.

One resident claimed yesterday that about 20 members of the community had been or were currently having treatment for stress or depression.

The islander, who asked not to be named, said: "You can't suddenly click your fingers and create a community. There has been a lot of stress caused by what amounts to a social experiment.

"People have fallen out between themselves and SNH and things seem to take an awfully long time to happen ­ new houses have been promised but not built, businesses are not getting help.

"The end result is that people feel intimidated and under pressure and they leave. So much for forgetting all the strains of modern life ­ they seem to have come here with a vengeance."

All those who live on Rhum, apart from the lone teacher at the tiny school of eight pupils, are employed by the heritage agency to run it as a giant nature reserve, which receives about 5,000 visitors a year. The ruggedly beautiful outcrop, also known as the Forbidden Island, is home to a burgeoning wildlife population including goats, eagles, 100,000 Manx shearwater seabirds and a herd of 3,500 red deer.

But while the fauna has flourished on and around the island's 2,500ft basalt peaks, human relations on Rhum have been increasingly fraught. SNH confirmed yesterday that its reserve officer, Anne Thomson, had resigned from her job and left Rhum after saying she had "simply had enough of everything".

Mrs Thomson also left behind her husband, Derek, and at the weekend was reported to be living on the adjoining island of Uist with a former neighbour from Rhum.

A family of five temporarily left the island last year after a dispute with other community members and have since decided not to return.

A further two adults and three children from the current population of 28 will leave by the end of the month ­ leaving the number of inhabitants just four above the low of 1998.

Charlie King, a member of the Highland Council and chairman of the Rhum Development Committee, said SNH had been slow in making promised improvements and to liaise properly with its employees.

He said: "SNH do not know how to communicate with the residents. That's the real problem. [SNH] cannot understand that although many of them work for SNH, they also have a life as people in the community."

SNH confirmed that it had sent a welfare officer to the island to assess discontent among its employees but bosses said they were satisfied the stress-related departures had not been caused by the agency.

A spokesman said: "We have taken care to ask those who have left the island just why they were doing so. We have been reassured that it is not because of the actions of SNH.

"The population peak of 42 last year was an artificial one caused by a number of temporary contracts. We are not running a social experiment ­ this is a long-term project to establish a viable population and wildlife tourism programme."

The body, which also runs Kinloch Castle, an Edwardian hunting lodge on the east coast, as a hotel for visitors, said it was working with a housing association to provide accommodation for newcomers.

It has also contributed £500,000 towards the costs of building a new landing slipway to make life easier for visiting boats.

One senior SNH source added: "What is happening on Rhum is normal life. Stress happens in rural areas but the problems of a number of individuals do not mean the whole community is falling apart."